Potent Pairing

In a collaboration that no one saw coming, Gucci seems to finally be shifting gears

Did the Gucci show really happen? Is Gucci really 100? Why was Balenciaga the elder (104!) roped in to celebrate? Is this a tap-thy-stablemate’s-mind Gucci for the next century? Did your head not spin? Does Gucci need Balenciaga to—finally—look this interesting? Are they not able to reinvent themselves on their own? Is this Balenciaga doing Gucci? A sort of guest editor? Or Gucci in homage mode? Or an expression of Alessandro Michele’s desire to do Balenciaga? Do we need a Balenciaga ‘Hourglass’ bag with Gucci monogram? Or Gucci jackets with Balenciaga shoulders? Or Gucci-Balenciaga suits with the logotype of both brands littered on them, like department store gift wrappers? Or the familiar printed leggings-cum-boots chez Balenciaga? What’s a coat fastened to the extreme left a la Balenciaga doing in a Gucci collection? Or an asymmetric dress with a draped hemline so evocative of the B appearing in a show (still) typical of the G?

Is the world we are living in now not confusing enough?

The action takes place in supposedly London’s Savoy Hotel, imagined as a club with a catwalk and a secret garden. The music is not house (as has been the choice of the season at other houses), but a mish-mash that is a narcissistic bang at Gucci as narcotic, from Lil Pump’s yo-bro chorus of “Gucci gang” to Tita von Tesse’s tease on Die Antwood’s “Gucci coochie”. And there is a lot to analyse and unpack. But we may risk misreading everything. Mr Michele is, of course, no stranger to collaboration (the allegedly sold-out collab with The North Face, the most recent). He is also quite the plunderer of the past and cultures not his own. This collection, conversely called “Aria” (essentially an operatic solo), although a “pop” version, looks to the past, to self, and to contemporaries in a show that seems to salute whatever deserves to be hailed. A greatest hits of Gucci’s own legacy, the now fashion culture that the house is largely part of, and the design contributions of another equally iconoclastic, if not more, label. As Mr Michele said, post-show, to the media, “I have been an excellent thief, a robber.”

This is not the Gucci we are used to. It’s less geeky (except some of the models), less foolish (except, maybe the accessories), and even less irreverent (except, again, the accessories). Could this be Mr Michele’s tame side; he on the periphery of reasonableness? The clothes do not look too vintage-y (the retro vibe cannot, of course, be totally rid of) nor do they deliberately look as though sourced from the Salvation Army. We keep seeking out Balenciaga, but the partnership is not so much the two designers coming together to design the collection as one expressing love for the work of another. This is not the same as, say, Dries van Noten and Christian Lacroix in 2019. Or, contemporaneously, Valentino and Undercover. And definitely not Miuccia Prada with Raf Simons (no way!). Rather, Mr Michele “quoted” Demna Gvasalia, according to the show notes, not copied. Euphemistic talk no doubt, but it makes the results very much Mr Michele’s singular doing. Apparently, he was granted permission by his Georgian Kering associate to create hacks of Balenciaga’s distinctive silhouettes for both the ready-to-wear and the leather goods. This truly speaks of the creative culture of today, when Balenciaga can be treated like Ikea. Replete with rhinestones and marabou!

The references make for absorbing viewing. For so long (it has been more than half a decade of Alessandro Michele’s tenure!), Gucci has been frustratingly predictable that we wanted to really not dislike this collection. Sure, we do not expect Gucci to suddenly become unprovocative. We want their fans to go on being enamoured. It is inevitable there is enough camp to keep both Harry Styles and Jared Leto delighted and sufficient logos and indeterminate forms to keep Billie Eillish coming back for more. And adequate 70s disco glam (glittered cowl-neck top for men!) to get night owls ready for the day when bars and club can open. At the same time, it is refreshing to see that some of the tailoring is ‘classic’ and that the clothes sit well; the oversized is not actually ill-fitting. And the return of equestrian details, even if they are harnesses for chests or saddles for shoulders—not so barefaced since Dawn Mello was hired to revive the brand in 1989. But we are not sure if we are used to seeing Balenciaga’s extraordinary (less so now), offbeat (that, too) shapes within the kooky universe—including a near-obsession with body parts held in the hand, such as this season’s glittery minaudières of anatomically-correct heart—that is the only Gucci that fashionistas know.

But Mr Michele did not only pay homage to Balenciaga, he also saluted fashion’s patriarch of sexy who changed Gucci forever, Tom Ford (totally snubbing John Ray, Alessandra Facchinetti, and, unsurprisingly, Frida Giannini). The first suit that appeared will always be associated with Mr Ford: in red velvet, and worn with a baby blue shirt, with two buttons deliberately undone. Thankfully, none of the pre-wokeness “porno chic” was revived. That Mr Ford’s designs could be easily riffed—er, hacked—is understandable: Mr Michele and the Texan designer/film maker have a maximal love of the ’70s, even when both dance on opposite ends—one with a deep reverence for the elegance of Halston, the other with the ardour for the hipness of the hippies. The Tom Ford-era suits, now with reshaped shoulders, have the sexed-up dapper cool associated with the oddball individuality of Balenciaga, rather than something akin to those in forgotten wardrobes of Haight-Ashbury. Mr Ford is relevant again.

In most cities, dance clubs are closed, but luxury fashion seems eager for them to open or to be looking forward to the mirrored ball spinning again. The just-concluded Dior pre-fall 2021 show in Shanghai is illustrative. At Gucci, the models, flanked by flash lights, finish their catwalk routine and move to a holding area (gosh, we are thinking of Prada. Again!). But rather than ending their job there, they are led by one of them, who opens a massive door, into a garden. There, they danced among white horses—interestingly, without saddlery—and albino peacocks. Very soon, as the frolicking suggests, the world can parallel Peter Pan’s. Perhaps, Alessandro Michele, in his mind, is singing I will Survive.

Screen grab (top) and photos: Gucci

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